Bill Maxwell: We need immigration law that will be fair to migrant workers

By Bill Maxwell

Tampa Bay Times

Published: Wednesday, July 25 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

I dislike the use of cliches and truisms, but I accept some that nicely encapsulate the truth of a matter, like the one attributed to Albert Einstein that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

That captures the insanity of U.S. immigration policy related to migrant and seasonal agricultural workers, going back to the disastrous Bracero Program of the 1940s. The program brought thousands of Mexican laborers to the United States as a way to eliminate illegal immigration. It was officially shut down in 1964.

Our current policy is the same old hodgepodge of conflicting federal and state regulations. It is crafted by cynical politicians cheered on by ill-informed voters professing to believe in the mythical American/Protestant work ethic, the belief that Americans work harder than anyone else, will do any kind of work — even seasonal farm work — and are fairly rewarded for their sweat and loyalty.

Many years before the economic downturn that began in 2007, conservatives in many agricultural states, especially in the South and Southwest, were promoting harsh crackdowns on undocumented farm laborers. The federal government joined in by establishing tough controls along the U.S.-Mexican border and by implementing equally tough lockup and deportation procedures.

Saner heads — including those of researchers, farmers and migrant/seasonal worker advocates — warned that such Draconian rules would create labor shortages on many farms. But as the economic crisis deepened during 2008 through 2010 and as tea party politics gained traction, several states, including Arizona, Alabama and Georgia, ignored the warnings and passed "show-me-your-papers" laws.

At the same time, several less-publicized trends emerged that also affect the supply of available farm labor. Immigration experts report that along with Border Patrol agents who stop Mexicans from crossing the U.S. border illegally, human traffickers and drug cartels are preying on would-be border-crossers, forcing many to stay in Mexico. An improving Mexican economy is also keeping many workers home.

As predicted, these factors and new state laws have produced severe worker shortages coast to coast. American Farm Bureau officials say the U.S. produce industry will lose $5 billion to $9 billion in annual income because of labor shortages. In many places, fruits and vegetables are left to rot, and some growers plan to cut back on next season's planting. Others are shifting to crops such as peanuts, corn, soybeans and cotton that require far less stoop labor.

What are we doing to fix the problems?

Officials are tweaking the H-2A temporary worker visa program that was started in 1943. It gave Florida's sugarcane industry permission to hire thousands of Caribbean workers after growers claimed they could not find Americans to do the nasty, low-wage, dangerous work. The new version of H-2A is a bureaucratic nightmare for many growers, especially those who hire fewer than 10 employees.

Believing the false notion that Americans will do farm work and motivated by their desire to reduce unemployment, federal and local officials are forcing farmers to document the need for foreign-born workers to be eligible for H-2A. They must prove they cannot find enough unskilled, unemployed locals to do the work, which can take months. Those who have what is known as "productivity standards" are seeing their applications for workers with "skills" and "experience" denied. This makes no sense.

And therein lies a major part of the insanity of our immigration policy related to migrant/seasonal workers: The majority of Americans falsely believe that anyone can and will do this backbreaking work. But many agricultural jobs, such as tending livestock and transplanting onions, require background skills in addition to a pair of hands and a strong back. Smart growers hesitate to simply grab people off the street.

Labor experts and farmers have been arguing for years, using empirical evidence, that average Americans lack the skills and toughness to do farm work. But we persist in lying to ourselves time and again and expecting different results.

Migrant and seasonal workers are unique. In addition to being outdoors from sunup to sundown, they often work seven days a week for short periods before packing their belongings and moving on to the next job hundreds or thousands of miles away. They enjoy none of the benefits, such as health insurance, the rest of us expect.

Instead of passing laws that punish those who do the thankless work the rest of us will not do, we should use the increasing labor shortage and crop losses as the opportunity to stop the insanity. We have a moral obligation to establish immigration legislation that permanently and fairly rewards the invisible people who harvest our bounty.

Contact Bill Maxwell at bmaxwell@tampabay.com.

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